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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Guest Blog: Reinventing Assessment for the 21st-Century

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Editor's Note: Our guest blogger today is Andrew Marcinek, an English Instructor at Boys Latin Charter School of Philadelphia. His post is inspired by this week's #edchat topic, "What's the ideal classroom design for 21st-century learning?"

The answer to student achievement and mastery is not found in shaded bubble. This, however, is what we work with yearly in American schools. We teach. We Test. We re-teach. We differentiate. We struggle. We do everything within our power to promote student learning, but in the end, it comes down to the mighty test. This is the culture we live in and until we have teachers in congress and school boards eliminated, this is what we have to work with.

I will now come down off of my soap box and offer some ideas for promoting 21st century assessment in your classroom while synching your lessons with state standards and objectives. In the past, many of us would design a unit, create a test, and develop lessons. While this is still a good practice, we need to change the method of delivery and assessment in rapidly changing world.

Today's students' are unlike any other student in history; they have access to more information than any generation in history, yet they are underperforming. Wait...what? Underperforming! In the most affluent country on the planet? The numbers are shocking, but they're real. How did this happen in America?

One of the reasons this is happening is because of the way we assess our students. Students are residing in a 20th century classroom equipped for the 21st century. Students are taking 19th and 20th century exams in a classroom that has an interactive white board and 1:1 laptop ratio. This is where our problem begins.

We give assessments to gauge mastery and understand how our students are performing, however, do we vary and differentiate those assessments? No. Everyday teachers hear the word differentiation, yet only a few actually follow this trend through to their assessments. A 21st century assessment is a menu of options. It allows students to pick and choose the best method for showcasing a specific skill. It is an authentic method of learning and something adults do every day.

In the work place - be it a school, law office, or a graphic design start-up - employees are faced with a set of problems daily. Those problems need solutions. You see where I'm going with this? Why don't we apply the same principles to our classroom assessments? At the beginning of each unit teachers present essential questions that are hovering over each lesson and are constantly referred to throughout the unit. These questions need answers. It is the students' job to find the best answer along the way and make their own decision.

Let's consider two options.


Option 1

1. My students are currently reading The Kite Runner. In the beginning of the unit, I presented three guiding questions.

a. What is a family?
b. Do our childhoods shape the adults we become?
c. Can a person truly forgive another or themselves?

Throughout the unit we cover various standards via NCTE for ELA - activating prior knowledge, analyzing vocabulary, summarizing, examining figurative language, etc. These standards are implemented into the daily lessons and each day is met with a reflection blog that students maintain and are responsible for on a daily basis.

So what is the end product? How do I know if my students mastered the skills set forth in the beginning of the unit? I let them choose.

We have a classroom outfit for the 21st century learner. We have 1:1 laptops, a classroom wikispace, a class blog, projector, smart board, and digital cameras. Students are given a review of the unit. We revisit main ideas, plot points, characters, and themes. In the end, we recall our essential questions. I ask students to take one essential question and answer it by using support from the novel. I don't give them a handout or a packet. I don't even use paper. I give them a problem, a question, and now they must find the best solution.

This type of assessment emulates real life and what we, as adults, are faced with daily. Students are forced to think critically, analyze the literature, apply what they know and synthesize that with some form of multimedia, and then the class, myself, and possibly my learning network can assess and evaluate what they have mastered. This type of assessment not only embeds the entire ladder of Bloom's taxonomy, but it adheres to all of the standards and provides an audience for student work.

Students may choose to work in groups, they can choose to present via multimedia, or they can simply write an essay or blog post. The parameters are flexible and I am constantly monitoring for questions and progression. They have a deadline and a rubric that will assess their work. The rubric is broad and allows for students to showcase their talents and skills rather than travel down a myopic tunnel. The assessment meets all of the standards and allows for all types of learners to shine. It is differentiation at its best.

Option 2

Give them a unit test. Print it out and staple it together. Differentiate it by providing multiple choice questions, matching, short responses, and an essay. Have the students sit in rows, take the test all at once, and hand it in when they are finished. Run their answers through the scantron machine and get results, data, and a nice print out with an easy to read graph. You know exactly where each student is lacking and behind right? Sure, the data says so. Here is what the data does not account for...

...a bad day, a good guess, a sleepless night, a fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an upset stomach, a visual learner.

There is no data for that and there never will be.

Andrew Marcinek has been an English teacher for six years. He is also an adjunct professor of Language Arts at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, PA. Next fall Andrew will take over the Instructional Technology Specialist position at The Boys' Latin Charter School of Philadelphia. Andrew also authors a blog, iTeach, that focuses on 21st century classroom innovation and offers lessons and ideas for teachers seeking to advance their curriculum and tweets by the handle @andycinek.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Josh Farr's picture

I believe the key to tackling this gap in assessment will come through balance. To never assess trough standardized testing is simply not a reality for most of us. Though option 1 offers much more "thinking" creativeness, option 2 is simply the world in which we live. How about a blend. Let's use option 1 to better prepare the students for option 2.

Krystie Mathews's picture

I understand we are living in a technological age where mp3 players are practically glued into students' ears or they feel their cell phones are literally a part of themselves and we should do more to incorporate technology into assessment. I love the idea of option 1 but like Mary Willard, I do not have laptops, video cameras, smart boards, class blogs, etc. We don't even have enough computers in the entire school to accomodate the students' needs. This type of project would take months to complete strictly because of lack of resources. A paper test may not be as involved and does not account for a bad day but it shouldn't be thrown out the assessment window entirely. If students' broke up with their boyfriend, didn't eat breakfast, etc. allow for a make-up test, or the ability to go find the correct answers for half credit, or go over the test with students to further ingrain the information. Group projects the focus on essential questions is a great way to assess student knowledge retention and understanding but sometimes we have to work with what we have be it a stapled piece of paper.

Michele's picture

I would have to agree with you. It is very important to incorporate, not only the use of technology, but also traditional types of research methods into your lessons. Unfortunately, even in today's society, not everyone has the capabilities or access to computers. This is why the use of magazines, books, and libraries are so important to use, as well. In addition, it is pretty easy to go to Google and research a topic. But by using the old tried and true methods, I think that students are able to grasp a better understanding of the topic they are researching. Do not get me wrong, I totally agree with the use of 21st Century tools, but sometimes I think the students will benefit greater if they actually have to get their hands dirty and really search for the information they are trying to find in a book at the library.

Michele's picture

I would have to agree with you. It is very important to incorporate, not only the use of technology, but also traditional types of research methods into your lessons. Unfortunately, even in today's society, not everyone has the capabilities or access to computers. This is why the use of magazines, books, and libraries are so important to use, as well. In addition, it is pretty easy to go to Google and research a topic. But by using the old tried and true methods, I think that students are able to grasp a better understanding of the topic they are researching. Do not get me wrong, I totally agree with the use of 21st Century tools, but sometimes I think the students will benefit greater if they actually have to get their hands dirty and really search for the information they are trying to find in a book at the library.

Janet's picture

I am pleased to see teachers that are in a 19th century classroom can think outside the box and not rely on 21st century technology to deliver a differentiated and interesting lesson for their students. There's no reason why students have to be limited to a traditional lesson plan, dated from when I was in school. There's no reason why they have to hate school as much as we did.

Janet's picture

All without a smartboard, etc...so, you can apply Andrew's 21st century ideas in a 19th century classroom...great to see someone can think outside the box!

dhasty01's picture
dhasty01
Computer Technology Instructor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Excellent blog! Option 1 is what 21st century educators strive for and know internally that it can be achieved within any subject.

Thanks for your posting eloquence.

Mr. Desmond Hasty
Computer Technology Instructor
Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School
5501 Cedar Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19143
Phone: 215-387-5149 x105
Mobile: 215-840-1005

Beth Hahn's picture
Beth Hahn
Music teacher from Connecticut

When I read your blog and saw that your students each have a lap top and your classrooms all have interactive white boards I became quite jealous. My district is not so lucky. I think that until more students have the same kinds of access to technology we will not see improvement in assessment scores. I do believe that changes need to be made to the assessments also, but first students need adequate materials.

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